ABOARD FLIGHT SU 150 MOSCOW-HAVANA, Russia (AFP) – Throughout the 12-hour Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Havana, the window seat 17A stood conspicuously empty, waiting for a passenger who never came.
This was the seat that according to Aeroflot's flight records fugitive US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden was scheduled to occupy, supposedly on his way to claiming asylum in South America.
But like a twist from a Hollywood spy thriller, the main protagonist never showed up and the supporting cast -- dozens of journalists including AFP correspondents packed onto the aircraft -- were left chasing shadows.
In the end, the journalists had travelled to the other side of the world to find themselves none the wiser as to where on earth Edward Snowden was.
"I have a feeling that we are all participating in some grandiose spy conspiracy," said Olga Denisova, a journalist with Voice of Russia radio. "The fact that we have not seen him for two days means he is receiving some good support."
After arriving from Hong Kong on Sunday, Snowden and his legal assistant Sarah Harrison were checked in on Aeroflot SU 150 from Moscow to Havana for Monday, Aeroflot records seen by AFP showed.
Snowden was allocated 17 A and Harrison 17 C. But as boarding was completed and the last calls were made, the pair never showed up.
When the heavy doors of the Airbus 330 shut tight, several dozen journalists, who had bought the $2,000 round-trip tickets during a mad scramble to get onto Snowden's plane, realised they would be making the 12-hour journey to Cuba without him.
Passengers on the flight to Cuba boarded the plane amid extra security but most regular travellers seemed unaware of the espionage drama unfolding in front of them.
Snowden had been widely expected to be the last passenger to get on the plane. Several reporters watched the main entrance like hawks ignoring the pleas of the crew to take their seats and not to crowd the entryway.
"We are expecting seven more passengers," said the crew. Several minutes later the countdown went to three. Finally, all passengers were on board but Snowden was not among them.
Refusing to give up hope, some journalists speculated that Snowden might have boarded the aircraft through a different entrance directly from the tarmac, while others suggested he was hiding in the cockpit.
Takeoff was some 30 minutes behind schedule. Up in the air came the realisation that Snowden might have never intended to board that plane.
"I think he would have been a total fool if he took the flight. You can see for yourself the frenzy here," said flight attendant Yelena as she prepared to serve champagne to passengers in business class.
"I would do just the same."
Even without the passengers, the two empty seats in the 17th row drew curious stares. Camera clicks could occasionally be heard as reporters took their pictures.
But after the initial excitement, by the time the plane touched down in Havana at around 2300 GMT Monday, the flight felt like any other long haul route.
Mystery surrounded Snowden's whereabouts since he arrived in Moscow from Hong Kong on Sunday.
As a transit passenger planning to travel to Latin America, he had been widely expected to spend the night at a hotel at the airport but hotel officials never confirmed his stay.
It was still unclear if Snowden had himself changed the scheduled travel plans or if higher forces -- like Russian special services -- could have been involved.
Arriving in Havana empty-handed, the reporters on the flight still said they had to be on that plane.
"I am starting to see the funny side of things," said Jussi Niemelainen, a Moscow correspondent for Helsingin Sanomat, a Finnish newspaper. "But sometimes you just have to follow your instincts."
"We've been fooled," said Anna Nemtsova, a Moscow correspondent for Newsweek and a contributor for NBC News television. "But I am sticking around for a couple of days to make sure he does not arrive by the next plane."